Like Poe’s purloined letter, the Republican plan to heist the 2012 presidential election sits before us in plain view. And going Poe one better, it is perfectly legal.

The first part of the strategy has been unfolding for months. Since the 2010 elections brought Republicans to power in numerous swing states, officials in many of those states have made it harder for minority, poor and young voters to cast their ballots. GOP governments have been curtailing early voting (in Ohio and Florida) and requiring voters to produce official photo-identification cards (in Wisconsin). In South Carolina, the poll tax lives again: Voters who want an official photo-ID card must present a passport or a birth certificate, neither of which can be obtained for free.

Recently a new ploy has emerged, focused on the electoral college. In Pennsylvania, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R) has proposed changing the way the state’s electoral votes are tallied in presidential elections. (A state’s electoral votes reflect the number of its U.S. congressional districts, plus two more for its Senate seats.) Instead of having all of Pennsylvania’s electoral votes go to the candidate who carries the state’s popular vote, as is the long-standing practice in Pennsylvania and 47 other states, Pileggi wants to apportion those votes by congressional district.

Since Bill Clinton carried Pennsylvania in 1992, the state has gone Democratic in every presidential election. In 2008, Barack Obama carried Pennsylvania with 55 percent of its popular vote, thereby winning its 21 electoral votes. But if Pileggi’s plan had been in place, John McCain would have been given 10 electoral votes by virtue of winning 10 congressional districts. Obama would have been awarded nine for the nine congressional districts he carried, plus two for carrying the state’s popular vote.

The 2010 Census reduced Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation from 19 to 18, and the Republican legislature and governor have drawn new lines intended to create GOP majorities in 12 of the 18 districts. Under Pileggi’s plan, Obama could carry the state in 2012 — by winning huge majorities in heavily Democratic Philadelphia — and still lose the majority of its electoral votes.

Tom Corbett, Pennsylvania’s Republican governor, has said he’ll support the Pileggi plan. Other swing states that came under GOP control after 2010 could adopt their own versions: Thus Obama could carry Michigan, thanks to strong support in Detroit, or Ohio, as a result of big numbers in Cleveland and Columbus, and still lose most of those states’ electoral votes.

Ultimately, what Pileggi’s plan does is extend to the states the electoral college’s bias against popular-vote majorities. The electoral college, after all, was created out of a compromise so that Southern whites wouldn’t be outvoted by Northerners in the House of Representatives or in presidential elections. The compromise was to tally slaves in apportioning congressional districts among the states, and then award the presidency to the winner of the states’ electoral vote, not of the nationwide popular count. In 2000, Al Gore won half a million more votes than George W. Bush, but through the magic of electoral-college apportionment and a Republican Supreme Court, Bush won the White House. Under this new Republican scheme, candidates who win a state’s popular votes could still lose the majority of its electoral votes.

Considered in tandem with the drive to reduce voting among minorities and low-income citizens, the emerging Republican opposition to popular-vote democracy makes long-term strategic sense. With each year, the nation’s population and electorate become less white, even as the Republican Party becomes more and more a white folks’ party. As minorities and the poor tend to cluster in cities, in heavily Democratic congressional districts, apportioning a state’s electoral votes by congressional district creates an opportunity for GOP electoral gains even though the party’s share of the popular vote is waning. By contrast, a number of states controlled by Democrats (most recently, California) are trying to scrap the electoral college by conditionally pledging their electoral votes to the winner of the nationwide popular vote; the shift would take effect if and when enough states to elect a president go this route.

It may be that the 2012 presidential election ends in a landslide victory, no matter how the electoral votes are apportioned. But suppose a Republican wins only by virtue of vote suppression and plans such as Pileggi’s. There would be no basis to challenge the legality of the winner’s claim. The same cannot be said of his legitimacy. And if Rick Perry or Mitt Romney takes office solely by virtue of such anti-majoritarian chicanery, Democrats should not hesitate to challenge his presidency — based as it is on flouting majority rule — at every turn. They should refuse, for starters, to confirm his Cabinet appointments.

Rigging the already anti-democratic electoral college should not become the way to win the White House.

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